The Conservatives and Labour Party have both suffered losses in the English local council elections amid Brexit deadlock in Westminster, while the Lib Dems claimed their best results since 2003.
Theresa May had been braced for a tough night amid frustration at her government’s failure to take the UK out of the EU on March 29 as promised.
Labour also struggled, losing seats at a point in the electoral cycle when they could expect to be making significant gains at the expense of the government.
Jeremy Corbyn has fudged Labour’s Brexit policy on a second referendum in an attempt to appeal to both ‘Leave’ and ‘Remain’ voters.
But the Lib Dems, who have overtly pro-Remain platform, have been enjoying a good night, with some predictions that they could pick up as many as 500 seats.
Polling expert Professor Sir John Curtice of Strathclyde University said the voters appeared to be punishing whichever of the main two parties was in control in their area.
“The Labour Party is losing where they are strong historically, the Conservatives are losing where they are strong historically. It’s a plague on all your houses,” he said.
With results in from 88 of the 248 councils where elections are being held, the Conservatives had lost 224 seats and Labour 37 while the Lib Dems had gained 155 and the Greens 26.
There were 54 more independent councillors while Ukip remained unchanged overall.
With some analysts predicting overall Tory loses of 800 seats or more, Brexit Minister James Cleverly suggested it would be a good result if they could be kept down to 500. “If it was 500 rather than 1,000 I would be happy with that,” he told the BBC.
The Tory losses have already been blamed on Brexit.
Chancellor Philip Hammond is likely to be smarting after his mother-in-law Gillian Brown, lost her seat and leadership of Arun District Council to an independent.
Education Minister Nadhim Zahawi told the BBC the results showed why MPs should back May’s Brexit deal.
“Because we haven’t been able to deliver Brexit on March 29 we are seeing these results,” he told the BBC. “The prime minister has stretched every sinew, she has tried everything. We can keep blaming the Prime Minister, ultimately it is in the hands of us parliamentarians.”
But leading Tory Brexiteer MP Sir Bernard Jenkin said voters overwhelmingly believed that she had “lost the plot” and that the time had come for a change of leader. “They can see she is not in control of events,” he said.
“Certainly among Conservative activists and council candidates there is an almost universal feeling that it is time for her to move on.”
Conservative Tim Warren, the leader of Bath and North East Somerset Council who lost his seat to a Lib Dem, said local Tory councillors had been “given a kicking for something that wasn’t our fault”.
Donna Jones, Conservative group leader in Portsmouth, says Brexit played a “huge part” in her party’s difficult evening.
Labour meanwhile lost control in Bolsover, Hartlepool and Wirral and the mayoralty in Middlesbrough, where its vote was down 11% as independent Andy Preston was elected, although it did gain Trafford from no overall control.
Even where the party held on in its traditional stronghold of Sunderland, which voted heavily for Brexit in the 2016 referendum, it still lost 10 council seats.
Council leader Graham Miller said the party had paid the price for its stance on Brexit, with some MPs calling for a second referendum.
“The people of Sunderland have said ‘We are just not accepting that’. We have seen a massive protest vote on that issue tonight,” he said.
Shadow international trade secretary Barry Gardiner said the party was hoping to at least regain the 200 seats it lost when these seats were last contested in 2015.
He acknowledged, however, that it had been a difficult to get across the party’s position on Brexit, which is to back a second referendum in certain circumstances, on the doorstep.
“If a party is seen to be speaking with two voices, it is very difficult to connect when the policy of the party is a complex policy,” he told the BBC.
In contrast, the Lib Dems are in buoyant mood. As well as picking up councils from the Tories, they took North Norfolk from no overall control.
Lib Dem MP Layla Moran tweeted early on Friday morning: “The Lib Dems are BACK!”
Deputy leader Jo Swinson said: “Out and about across the country, the mood has been positive. If we can get into the triple figures of gains that would be a really, really good night. That would be part of that Lib Dem fightback that is happening.”
Change UK, the pro-EU party formed by The Independent Group, and Nigel Farage’s new Brexit Party both did not stand candidates in Thursday’s local elections.
But the two parties are planning to run a full slate of candidates at the European elections due to be held later this month.